Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s director of sport programs, will step down from his position in November after eight years.
Connell served as the British Equestrian performance director from 2003 until 2014 when he was hired by USEF. During his years with British Equestrian, Connell was responsible for coordination and delivery of the World Class Program for eventing, dressage, show jumping and para-dressage, funded by the government agency UK Sport. He was involved in the 2012 Olympic Games in London from the time the city earned the bid in 2005 through the Games.
Connell, 57, gave his notice to the USEF about two weeks ago. His last day will be Nov. 25, giving him time to guide and support U.S. teams taking part in the FEI World Championships in Herning, Denmark, and Pratoni, Italy.
“I’d been thinking about it a while and decided the time was right to move on,” he said. “I wanted to make sure there was plenty of time for the federation to find the right person and for that person to have long enough in the job ahead of Paris [Olympics in 2024]. Typically these sort of jobs run for an Olympiad or halfway through an Olympiad to a World Championships. I wanted to do Tokyo [Olympics in 2021] and try to make sure things were in place for Herning, and leaving before Herning and Pratoni wouldn’t have been right. With Tokyo delayed a year, it was the right thing to stay on and do the World Championships. Now’s the time for someone else to take up the reins.”
Under Connell’s direction, the U.S. show jumping and dressage teams had success at several championships, including Tokyo and the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina), but last winter the eventing program was shaken up when performance director Erik Duvander’s contract wasn’t renewed.
“I’ve enjoyed a lot of it,” Connell said. “There’s been disappointments and frustrations. I haven’t achieved everything I’d have liked to achieve. I think there’s still work to do on some of the pathways. I think there should be a coaching program across all disciplines. I believe that very strongly. There’s been a lot of unrest in eventing; that is disappointing. Hopefully before I go we can get the eventing pathway stronger and moving forward. That would make me very happy.”
Interim eventing team manager and Chef d’Equipe Bobby Costello, who was hired in April to replace Duvander through the FEI World Eventing Championships in September, also will be leaving. USEF is recruiting for a person to fill that role permanently and is seeking “declaration of interest” from qualified candidates through Aug. 19.
Connell is particularly proud of the success of the para-dressage program, which earned bronze in Tokyo—the country’s first Paralympic para-dressage team medal.
“You put a program in place, you put the right coach in place, and you have supportive owners and talented athletes and bring all that together, and you can win medals,” he said. “It’s the same in the other disciplines. The team medals in dressage and jumping were an incredible result of talented athletes supported by dedicated owners and team staff who really pulled together and fought hard for those medals.”
Connell thinks that the para-dressage program is on the right path but needs more athletes at the top and more regional growth and opportunities.
“The sport needs to keep growing,” he said. “It’s great that the [U.S. Dressage] Festival of Champions [Illinois] now includes para-dressage, although the entries won’t be huge this year because we’re close to Herning, timing-wise. It’s a step in the right direction. I would love to see the sport grow and become more integrated with dressage. It is dressage, just dressage for people with disabilities. You can never rest on your laurels. I don’t know what will happen in Herning, but I think Paris is looking really good.”
Connell, Gladstone, New Jersey, is hoping his successor will see the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games as “the long game” and that riders will focus on that, saying six years is not long. He knows that a home Games brings advantages and disadvantages.
He said he’s happy to be as involved in training his successor as they’d like him to be, and he hopes to have an eventing technical advisor and chef d’equipe in place before his departure.
As for the future, Connell, who’s married to USEF’s director of show jumping Lizzy Chesson, doesn’t have any firm plans yet for his next step.
“I’m nervous,” he said. “You have to earn a living, don’t you? But I think I’m also the sort of person who, until you make the decision to go, it’s difficult to look to something else. In my ideal world I’d find four or five projects that would keep me busy and keep my brain going and make a decent living. We’ll have to see what happens. It’s been a huge privilege to be involved this whole way.”